Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Turbulent Times

John Eden (editor) Turbulent Times 10 (2014)
This one falls some way outside of the usual parameters in context of the sort of thing I tend to review but fuck it - John Eden is one of those people who has always managed to make the world in his immediate vicinity a much more interesting place to be, and one of the few people I've known for any length of time who is yet to inspire me to any clandestine two-faced mutterings on the topic of perceived twattery during paranoid or otherwise less charitable interludes. His work deserves support is what I am trying to say, and so here we are.

To briefly fly off in another direction entirely, Philip Purser-Hallard's Of the City of the Saved... describes a technological afterlife amounting to the Christian heaven wherein everyone who has ever lived mingles with everyone else who has ever lived. Oddly, I feel I'm beginning to get some idea of how this might feel, because nothing ever goes away forever, at least not any more. I read earlier editions of Turbulent Times back in the nineties. I am now facebook friends with others I knew at the same time, some of whom will also recall both this magazine and some of the artists featured. Weirdest of all - at least to me - was finding myself recommending this to Simon who used to work in Discovery Records in Stratford-on-Avon when I was at school over thirty years ago, and who sold me my copy of Never Mind the Bollocks. It's not like we were best mates or anything, but he turned up as a friend of a friend on facebook, and we began talking, and it turned out that he's still a big fan of both vinyl records and printed fanzines thirty plus years down the line. He'd just bought the new album by Philip Best's Consumer Electronics, just as I come across references to the same Philip Best in my 1983 diary which I'm presently transcribing to electronic form; and then a different Simon, specifically one of the Ceramic Hobs, informs me of the astonishing fact that Philip Best is moving to Austin, which is quite near where I now live, and that he has been following my blog, An Englishman in Texas. Anyway, Simon - the one who once sold me Never Mind the Bollocks - dutifully sent away for Turbulent Times and enjoyed it just as I hoped he would; and of course he did because he's a man of taste and it's a blummin' good read.

Anyway, the point of this is that sometimes I'm no longer quite sure there's still such a thing as the past. Recent eras have developed into a permanent present, and there's something really satisfying about finding a fanzine made of ink, paper, and staples in my mailbox in 2014. Since the advent of the internet and any old wanker being able to share their inconsequential thoughts with an indifferent universe by means costing no pennies, the sort of commitment required to achieve printed form has come to mean a great deal more than was once the case; and Turbulent Times is accordingly one hell of a lot more fun than reading something off a screen.

This issue covers a ton of people - musicians, noise artists, and general oddballs - about whom I previously knew nothing, and whose work I may not even like should I ever hear it, but who nevertheless provide the foundations of fascinating and witty reading. There's also the endlessly entertaining Ceramic Hobs interviewed, and a pleasantly unequivocal discussion of fascist tendencies in weirdy music, and Elizabeth Veldon countering the sausagery of the noise scene. Figurative breaths of fresh air occur with some frequency.

It's very strange being nearly fifty years old and reading this magazine in Texas, but it has reminded me how exciting it can be to discover this sort of stuff and specifically in this way. It's great to know that this exists and that it definitively exists right now, as opposed to representing another virtual recycling endlessly reproduced on a thousand screens for a few moments before the passive and not really too bothered consumer clicks onto something else. Turbulent Times is nothing less than inspirational.

Buy it here while you can.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Universe Maker

A.E. van Vogt The Universe Maker (1953)

I suspect there may be a sort of physics of second hand books if A.E. van Vogt is anything to go by. Of the twenty or so van Vogt titles I now have on my shelves - all picked up from second hand places - the most memorable titles all seem to have appeared amongst the first ten or so that I came across. It could be that I've simply grown tired of his weird, inscrutable exercises in rambling surrealism, I suppose, although I prefer the theory that his better works are the ones which tended to sell well, and so eventually found their way to branches of Oxfam, Half Price or wherever in the greatest numbers; so when I now encounter a van Vogt title I've not read, the likelihood is that it will be one of the lesser works. That's my theory anyway.

The Universe Maker begins with the sort of dynamic thrust that promises something at least as good as The Mind Cage or The Weapon Makers, and our man is clearly on top form with his characteristically dense and hypnotically angular prose:

Peering out through the glass, Cargill had the initial impression that he was looking onto a well-kept park. The impression changed. For through the lattice work of the shrubbery he could see a street. It was the kind of street men dream about in moments of magical imagination. It wound through tall trees, among palms and fruit trees. It had shop windows fronting oddly shaped buildings that nestled among the greenery. Hidden lights spread a mellow brightness into the curves and corners. The afternoon had become quite dark and every window glowed as from some inner warmth. He had a tantalising vision of interiors that were different from anything he had ever seen.

All this came from only a glimpse as viewed through the lattice work of a rose arbour. Cargill drew back, trembling. He had had his first look at a city of hundreds of years in the future. It was an exhilarating experience.

Unfortunately it develops into a fairly bewildering experience as once again van Vogt spins a peculiar yarn which veers off in random directions, concentrating all the while on the direct subjective experience of the main character and so leaving certain crucial developments open to the reader's interpretation. It's a story told as though through just one half of a conversation, which unfortunately suffers from van Vogt's typically oblique narrative. Although given the subject, there probably wasn't any other way of telling it.

The story takes Morton Cargill, a war veteran, into his own remote future to be executed so as to heal a sort of inherited psychic wound inhabiting the descendent of a girl he accidentally killed in a car accident back during his lifetime, except he didn't actually kill her after all, and he himself becomes the future Shadow leader demanding his own execution; or something like that. The narrative also takes in a civil war between the ground and those who have chosen to live in the sky, and the Shadows from an even more distant future. Fuck knows what's going on.

Curiously, the theme of the novel would appear to relate to what I suspect may be van Vogt's own peculiar cosmology, a universe in which matter is a minor property of energy, and we can inherit  psychological damage suffered by our ancestors. I say van Vogt's own, but I suppose some of it may come from Korzybski's general semantics, or from Dianetics with which he was very much involved at the time, and certainly the descendants of Marie Chanette suffering from the trauma of the accident which killed her seems reminiscent of Hubbard's engrams. There appears to be a lot more to it than can be summarised in a single paragraph, and unfortunately with van Vogt being van Vogt, it's quite difficult to pick out a succinct quotation to illustrate what I think he's talking about. There's also the further difficulty of atmospheric effect being pretty much indivisible from meaning in the van Vogtian narrative.

What this amounts to is a novel which feels quite profound, potentially A.E. van Vogt's own VALIS or similar, but which is quite difficult to follow; although on the positive side, it's also very short so the confusion doesn't have time to become annoying.

I think this means that The Universe Maker is good, and it certainly suggests it may be worth my taking another shot at it once my brain has recovered.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Lost World

Michael Crichton The Lost World (1995)

I remember enjoying the film. In fact I remember enjoying this book last time I read it, but I guess that was a while ago, back when I was less fancy than I am these days. Once both myself and the book reviews algorithm of the Sunday Express found Crichton's Jurassic Park sequel gripping, but we have since gone our separate ways. These days I am distracted by the science which whilst fascinating and possibly legitimate is phrased as though cribbed from Reader's Digest, or at least something with the sterile tang of dentist's waiting room; and the story wanders as though plotted by a small child, new developments unfolding as they occur to him and each new character introduced with a big copypasta wodge of notes from the original plot outline. In this respect The Lost World seemed painfully formulaic, Lawrence Burton decided.

He was about five foot seven. He had brown hair. He sat frowning at the computer, thinking back to those morning's spent reading Crichton's Lost World, struggling to recall if the film had been quite so bad. He wore beige trousers and a cheese hat. He enjoyed country ham and biscuits but hated paying taxes. His wife's name was Phyliss, and she was very, very pretty.

The Lost World is four-hundred pages of undifferentiated suspense upon which Crichton has stuck a succession of sciencey post-it notes, far too many of them opening with scientists believe, presumably so as to avoid either naming any name which might get in the way of the plot by making it look a bit stupid, or committing the tale to anything which could turn out to be bollocks should anyone get around to inventing Google.

Scientists believe - for example - that the pyramids of Egypt could not have been built without recourse to extraterrestrial technology, which is the sort of thing that crackpots, the Daily Mail, and crackpots who write for the Daily Mail tend to peddle, scientists in this case usually meaning a bloke who has studied at Oxford in the sense of having once been there on the National Express and read a few pages of some book about flying saucers in the shop before buying it.

I gather Crichton didn't really want to write this one and it sort of shows, as though he grudgingly accepted the job on the grounds of it being paying work upon which to hang a couple of pet theories for the sake of making it less of a chore, and because paying work is always better than a kick up the arse. The pet theories in question derive from chaos mathematics, which here supposedly support the idea that dinosaur extinction came down to shifting behavioural algorithms 'n' shit, as opposed to a bloody great asteroid screwing up the entire planet for a few hundred years. Chaos theory demonstrates that dinosaurs possibly forgot how to take care of their young and became chavs. I suppose it works if you really want it to, but I can't help feel it's one of those fancy designer ideas explaining something which already has a much better explanation, namely the one about the aforementioned asteroid.

Dinosaurs accordingly enter the narrative in convenient sequence like the prizes on Brucie's conveyor belt or the cast of one of those books in which the cow says moo, immediately followed by the duck saying quack. The fossil record for maiasaurus, for example, preserves her skeleton along with those of a clutch of her hatchling young, and so she has a name which translates as Caring Mother Lizard which must surely be more of an accident of geology than an indictment of the parenting skills of other dinosaurs; but nevertheless Crichton's cast of yelping scientistics encounter maiasaurs busily preparing oven chips and mini-pizzas for their young, helpfully illustrating their characteristic qualities. This scene is followed by the dome-headed pachycephalosaurs headbutting things in illustrative spirit. Had there ever been a dinosaur known for its expert knowledge of fine wines, the next chapter would have doubtless unfolded just as a pachycephalosaur nuts their battered transport, busting open the trunk and spilling bottles of Chateau Latour-Martillac across the savannah.

I think that's most of the jokes I can be bothered to wring out of this one, and they should be sufficient to give a reasonable impression of how gripping this novel really isn't. If not, then it's probably worth considering that even Spielberg's big screen exercise in hot-dog retail dispensed with most of Crichton's story. It's possibly less offensive than what Conan Doyle did with the same title, but that isn't saying much.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Seven Days in New Crete

Robert Graves Seven Days in New Crete (1949)

Robert Graves was the renowned author of I, Claudius and a noted scholar of Greek myth, and by association mythology in general. I had no idea that he'd ever tried his hand at science-fiction, and I stumbled across this whilst seeking the aforementioned I, Claudius, and it makes absolute sense that his science-fiction should take such a distinctively mythological orientation. I say science-fiction mainly on the grounds of it belonging to the genre of Utopian writings which we may as well call science-fiction because why the fuck not, but it's a long way from even Olaf Stapledon's version of future humanity. The narrator of Seven Days in Crete wakes to find himself magically summoned by witches from the future, and so ensues three-hundred pages of typically Utopian form in which our man explores his futuristic surroundings and asks questions.

The future here follows on from some point at which the human race decided to retrace its footsteps, returning to the pre-technological idyll of Crete, or thereabouts. Magic is real. Society is divided into five basic classes or estates. What writing remains is preserved on communally held plates of silver and gold with even the complete works of Shakespeare having been reduced to a few pithy paragraphs; and the written word is the preserve of a small elite. War is conducted by means of a game resembling football, and the price paid for this Utopia is ultimately revealed to be ritual human sacrifice. I realise Graves' model for New Crete was old Crete, but I was surprised at the parallels with Ancient Mexican society - everything but the pyramids, more or less.

The problem with Utopian fiction is, by my reckoning, that it tends to be quite dull, as Thomas More is my witness. Commentary upon Utopian fiction therefore tends to work towards exposing the bodies upon which purportedly perfect societies are invariably built, which in itself can be a little predictable. Graves evades the pitfalls of the form simply through being such a good writer, one to whom the dull or merely functional sentence is apparently a stranger. He finds the wonder in the weird world of New Crete, spicing his observations with a faint tang of cynicism, but never so much as to spoil the tone; and this is significant because all of the magic and witchery and general rustic folksiness are of such a kind which commonly lends itself to somewhat more turgid narratives in my experience, the sort of thing which usually suggests the author has spent the last six or seven hours skipping amongst the toadstools in a chiffon robe saying oh wow, that's like really amaaaaazing... cough cough George MacDonald...

Being better than that, Graves steers us towards a conclusion which feels absolutely right and necessary for the purpose of the tale, even if it doesn't come as a huge surprise - excepting possibly some of the grislier details. I'm still not absolutely sure what the main theme could be as there seem to be a number of possibilities. Seven Days in New Crete may simply be a criticism of the Utopian ideal as expressed in literature, or a warning against the sort of naivety by which one may be swept up in the enthusiasm for progressive but unworkable solutions, particularly in hasty response to - for obvious example - the horror of the second world war in the case of this novel. Certain aspects suggest the story may offer some sort of commentary on the Soviet Union, albeit by oblique means, namely the parallel folksy reductionism which replaced the more progressive elements of Soviet society; or even that the novel may itself serve as an argument for a certain degree of reductionism, a return to a model of civilisation with far less moving parts to go wrong.

Maybe it's all of the above.

In any case, Seven Days in New Crete is nothing if not thought provoking, and makes for one hell of a better read than the great majority of its Utopian kind.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Cat's Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Cat's Cradle (1963)
I have no idea why, but much as I loved the absolute shit out of Slaughterhouse Five without a morsel of reservation, for all its credentials as one of the finest novels ever written, it failed to inspire me with a desire to hunt down further works by its author. I have no idea why this should be, and it almost certainly says more about me than it does about Vonnegut's writing; although I suppose I may have harboured some subconscious fear of Slaughterhouse Five being the anomalous peach of a career otherwise reading like the Planet Sapphica novels of J. Lee Mace, about which, the less said the better.

So Cat's Cradle pretty much leapt into my hands from the shelf upon which it had been placed in a branch of Half Price Books, and not least because it was this specific title which had been recommended to me by a friend whilst he introduced me to the idea of Kurt Vonnegut having written more than just the one book.

Here we have a writer on the trail of a scientist who may quite easily have provided some percentage of inspiration for Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove of 1964, specifically a trail drawn in the paths taken by those around him. Somehow this brings us to the creation of ice-nine, a substance which could pretty much destroy all life on earth if used carelessly, and also to a bizarre cast of cartoon characters, and to Bokononism, a fully realised religious system seemingly based on wisecracks; and it all happens on a small Caribbean island, a shoddy banana republic serving as metaphor for western society.

Cat's Cradle is clearly a precursor to Slaughterhouse Five in many respects, already focussing on the terrible consequences of industrialised warfare by means of a narrative which leaps back and forth within its own chronology. Here the leaps are made not through time travel but simple interjection and anecdote following authorial digressions around the narrative oxbows of each new character as they arrive; which is why it's called Cat's Cradle, I would guess; because that's how it reads, and so much of its story is hung upon the flimsiest threads of association. Unusually, this isn't anything like so bewildering as one might imagine, possibly thanks to the humour - gently wry rather than belly laughs - which keeps it all rolling along very nicely, yielding a tale which seems closer in tone to Gulliver's Travels than almost anything I've read since Gulliver's Travels - albeit without the misanthropic subtext of the later chapters. This is Swiftian satire in the truest sense, quantified as such not simply because of what it does, but because it does it so well.

It seems the reputation is deserved, so I shall be seeking out further Vonnegut in future.

Monday, 27 October 2014

The Sun Also Rises

Ernest Hemingway The Sun Also Rises (1926)

William Burroughs said of the cut-up technique he introduced to literature - as formalised by himself and Brion Gysin - something along the lines of the novel being some twenty or so years behind painting, the art world having dispensed with the purely representational in the wake of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907, roughly speaking. Artists had begun to screw around with form, to create bold new images beyond that which existed in nature. Burroughs therefore likened his own reorganisation of existing texts to Dadaist collage. All well and good, but the premise of one form necessarily needing to catch up with the other was a bit of a straw man argument, given that both the Dadaists and Futurists had already applied collage technique to the written word and, as I'm beginning to appreciate, for most of the twentieth century literature has remained very much in step with the times as represented by whatever cultural swerves were taken in painting and sculpture. Hemingway is a case in point. The narrative unfolds in a straight line for sure, but the means by which that narrative is communicated is as much stripped down to pure form and rhythm as anything painted in the decades leading up to the big post-war freak out of abstract expressionism.

The taxi went up the hill, passed the lighted square, then on into the dark, still climbing, then levelled out onto a dark street behind St. Etienne du Mont, went smoothly down the asphalt, passed the trees and the standing bus at the Place de la Contrescarpe, then turned onto the cobbles of the Rue Mouffetard. There were lighted bars and late open shops on each side of the street. We were sitting apart and we jolted close together going down the old street. Brett's hat was off. Her head was back. I saw her face in the lights from the open shops, then it was dark, then I saw her face clearly as we came out on the Avenue de Gobelins. The street was torn up and men were working on the car-tracks by the light of acetylene flares. Brett's face was white and the long line of her neck showed in the bright light of the flares. The street was dark again and I kissed her. Our lips were tight together and then she turned away and pressed against the corner of the seat, as far away as she could get. Her head was down.

The rhythm may be erratic, picked out in the division of sentences into component statements and the repetition of certain words, but it is nevertheless as much a rhythm as anything painted by, for one example, Max Weber - whom I name specifically because Hemingway's above quoted opening to chapter four brought Weber's Rush Hour, New York of 1915 immediately to mind.

Anyway, The Sun Also Rises concerns itself with what Gertrude Stein identified as the Lost Generation, those left wandering and lacking purpose in the wake of the first world war, a war which - it might be argued - left existing ideas of morality looking somewhat ineffectual. The roughly autobiographical protagonists of The Sun Also Rises are rich kids who spend a lot of time talking about things of no real consequence, dining, travelling, having unsatisfactory affairs, eventually ending up in a small town in Spain having a bit of a wheeze during all the gore of the bull running. The gang have their emotional ups and downs but appear to remain unaffected by their environment. In chapter thirteen, Mike reduces military medals to a decorative feature of his dress, which may possibly have had more resonance between the wars than it does at present; and then there's the blood and innards all over the streets of Pamplona reduced to spectator sport, and in a way which I'm tempted to suggest may have been intended to echo the class divide painfully emphasised by the war. Carlos Baker as quoted on Wikipedia reckons that in The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway presents his notion that the Lost Generation, considered to have been decadent, dissolute and irretrievably damaged by World War I, was resilient and strong, but personally I don't really see it. I found them feckless and slightly irritating, and I was reminded of the counterpart bullfight in D.H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent also published in 1926 which could almost have been a direct response but for the timing. Naturally Lawrence's version entails more heaving and thrusting with brows furrowing darkly left right and centre, which seems to me a more natural response to such gruesome spectacle; and in the same novel we find:

She thought again of going back to Europe. But what was the good? She knew it! It was all politics or jazzing or slushy mysticism or sordid spiritualism. And the magic had gone. The younger generation, so smart and interesting, but so without any mystery, any background. The younger the generation, the flatter and more jazzy, more and more devoid of wonder.

Which quite adequately describes Hemingway's bunch, for my money, regardless of at least one of the two authors under discussion being something of a nutter who may not actually know what he's talking about all of the time.

So in lieu of a coherent summary, the short version of the review is that it was okay, but failed to deliver the life-changing experience I had been promised. I can see why The Sun Also Rises is regarded so highly, and much of it is beautifully put together, but it wasn't quite  my bag.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos

Ramsey Campbell (editor) New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1980
I can't quite tell whether I'm burned out on Lovecraft and his adjective-heavy tales of gambrel roofed houses inherited from shunned uncles containing unholy books so rare and forbidden that only four thousand copies of each were ever bound, these accursed copies now residing in the countless dark libraries of the legions of shunned and shadowy uncles of New England whom no mumbling villager will discuss with impunity; or whether it is simply that this collection just isn't very good. I suppose the cover might be a clue. There she was just getting ready for bed in her fishnet stockings and suspenders when —eek!

If Crouch End isn't the first Stephen King tale I've read - as it may well be - it will probably be the last. I know The Shawshank Redemption and The Shining were great, but those were films which may have been adapted from slim pamphlets of disappointing limericks for all I know, and that one with the big clown spider thing defeated with the devilishly clever plot twist of having some kids pull its legs off was frankly rubbish. Crouch End derives from when King spent some time in London and is accordingly crammed with as much local flavour as possible;

Vetter was dotty, all right. He was also a bloody fag-mooch. Fags didn't come cheap in this brave new world of socialism and the welfare state.

Oh Stephen, you bloody plonker! Pull yourself together, bloke. Crouch End, were it not for gratuitous references to council flats and fish and chips every other sentence would be Terrance Dicks, which falls somewhat short of that which I'm fairly sure was promised by King's reputation.

Unfortunately, the rest isn't significantly better, mostly variations on the usual H.P. sauce about dark texts and nameless shit transposed to a modern setting and generally lacking the lyrical flourishes which made Lovecraft's own repetitive reworkings of his one story a little more readable. Basil Copper's Shaft 247, for example, reads like Lovecraft adapted as Pertwee era Doctor Who, and I swear I had to flip back a couple of times to remind myself of which one I was reading. In fact I've forgotten which story I was referring to since writing that sentence.

I say, the rest isn't significantly better, although there are thankfully two exceptions - T.E.D. Klein's Black Man with a Horn and Ramsey Campbell's own contribution. The former is a rambling and yet thoroughly absorbing tale told through a train of thought pursued by someone claiming to have known Lovecraft, so it retains a sense of humour and exhibits a degree of self-awareness which elevates it above the karaoke turns of the preceding pages, if anything making them look all the more crappy and juvenile. Campell's The Faces at Pine Dunes fares similarly well through doing its own thing, invoking that characteristically English frisson of horror for which Stephen King was probably fumbling, and not worrying too much with ticking every last one of the usual Lovecraftian boxes. New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos has been amongst the blandest things I've read this year, but Klein and Campbell shine so unusually bright as to blot all the other crap from memory, whatever it was.